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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Background Q&A: The Impact of the UN Oil-for-Food Scandal

Council on Foreign Relations

Author: Robert McMahon, Deputy Editor
May 11, 2006


The UN's investigation into the abuse of the Iraqi oil-for-food program officially ended in October 2005, but it continues to reverberate within UN headquarters and in an increasing number of capitals. The inquiry was triggered by a report in the Iraqi newspaper al-Mada in January 2004 listing 270 persons and entities that received oil vouchers in exchange for helping Saddam Hussein. Some of those individuals, including prominent politicians, have resigned from their positions, face prosecution, or are the subject of domestic investigations. The independent investigation, headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, pointed to deep flaws in UN oversight of the program, which has helped spur a push for management reforms at the organization. The scandal reached the very top of the UN and tarnished the reputation of the secretary-general in some key member states. The Volcker inquiry extended to thousands of private firms found complicit in paying bribes to the Iraqi regime and receiving kickbacks to participate in the program. The scandal could have repercussions for future UN sanctions programs.

What did the investigation find?

The investigation, described in this CFR Background Q&A cast a wide net of blame for abuses of the humanitarian program in Iraq. It found the program achieved its central goal of feeding Iraqis and preventing Saddam Hussein from reassembling weapons of mass destruction. But the inquiry cited a range of lapses, negligence and corrupt practices that allowed Saddam's regime to earn as much as $11 billion while under sanctions. It cited poor judgment by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in failing to pursue inquiries involving his son, Kojo, and companies involved in the oil-for-food program, lax oversight by the UN Security Council, and shoddy UN procurement practices.

Read the rest of this article on the cfr.org website.

Copyright 2006 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on GlobalSecurity.org with specific permission from the cfr.org. Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to cfr.org.

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